Folk Like Us: Aidan Moffat on Where You're Meant to Be
It may have started life as a tour diary – a celebration of traditional Scottish folk music, looking for a story – but as Aidan Moffat explains, new film Where You’re Meant to Be discovers much more
There’s a brief establishing passage in Paul Fegan’s debut feature; a familiar, hirsute, slightly rotund musician sits expressionless in a van, while beyond the windows brews the nocturnal fug of Glasgow on a night out.
It’s a scene that eerily echoes Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin – which raises the issue: is Aidan Moffat the new Scarlett Johansson?
“That’s never occurred to me. But now that you mention it…” chuckles Moffat at the prospect. “I’m never going to be her boyfriend, so maybe being her is a more attainable achievement?”
The two films diverge at this point – no picking up lads on the streets on Govan for the Arab Strap frontman turned folk yarn-spinner – yet an accidental movie star Moffat doesn’t make. “Kind friends and companions, come join us in rhyme,” he intones to kick things off. A tour diary, yes – a jaunt north, west and east, musicians with a backpack full of folk songs re-engineered for contemporary Scotland – but if travel brings wisdom, then Where You’re Meant to Be finds it naturally, eschewing the passive regurgitation of Caledonian kitsch that can still be found underpinning the Scottish travelogue for an exploration of people and places through its oral traditions.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be in it that much to begin with. The plan was that the tour was something to hang stories around – me playing in certain places, and we’d find a story to tell. But as time went on we became more intimate with the people involved – especially Sheila Stewart.”
Stewart – famed folk singer and Scottish Traveller, who passed away while the film was being put together – was a larger than life character, not one for suffering fools gladly, and it’s her relationship with Moffat (and in particular, distrust at his appropriation of the traditional ballad) through which many of the film’s themes are explored.
“There’s a scene when we’re in the car, having a chat; that was the point that we realised the story was between the two of us. It wasn’t even an argument or a disagreement, just two completely opposed ideas. After that day we realised that was where the story was going to come from.”
“You’ve taken the context and blootered it,” is Sheila’s scolding response to Aidan updating The Parting Glass to include split lips and puke in the gutter. Considering that folk music’s ongoing integrity lay in its open-source nature – each generation acting as custodian of song, ensuring that it reflects contemporary as well as historical mores – was he surprised at her reaction?
“I was taken aback,” he admits. “Sheila – and her mother Belle – were known for that sort of thing; of making songs their own. The track Mickey’s Warning in the film – there’s a whole verse that no-one’s really sure where it came from, and people think that Sheila added it herself. So she was no stranger to it – she just didn’t particularly like what I was doing. Perhaps the parameters that she’d set said that you can move it just a little bit, but you can’t just take it and rewrite it.
“The stuff in the film is really about the one issue: the music. Outwith that, we actually had quite a good laugh. That time in the car, it broke down that day and we ended up sitting together for quite a while; when we weren’t talking about music we got on quite fine (and I did my best to try to steer the conversation away from music).
“She was a pretty funny woman. What’s the word to use? Acerbic. I certainly respected her.”
Protecting the folk tradition
Such umbrage is curious considering that Moffat is clearly no musical tourist, treating songs handed down from generation to generation as a museum piece or shortcut to a cheap gag. Indeed, during our chat he talks at length about how this musical storytelling documents working class lives, mentioning names such as Alan Lomax and Ewan MacColl as integral in protecting such heritage against the onrush of post-war modernity.
“MacColl did a lot of recordings of people in their natural environment performing these songs – those field recordings that were made back in the sixties are the best ones you can find. They’ll often be unaccompanied, usually just one voice, all their mates singing the choruses, and those are the things that affected me the most.”
As the film suggests, there’s also a thematic link between the vocabulary of folk and Aidan’s own back catalogue. “What I wanted to do with Arab Strap was to write about my life in the language that I used at the time. There weren’t really a lot of Scottish singers doing anything like that. The Proclaimers are the only ones I can think of; I loved their first two albums because it was refreshing to hear that voice. It’s what I wanted to do, which coincidentally is where the roots of folk music are – people singing about their lives.”
Documenting the tour
Hence the tour diary element of Where You’re Meant to Be, Moffat and band (Stevie Jones, Bdy_Prts’ Jenny Reeve and The Twilight Sad's James Graham) heading off the beaten trail – Drumnadrochit, Lewis, the tiny settlement of Lerags in Argyll – and inviting the entire community to gather round, much like his folk forebears would have done. Evenings of stories shared; of laughter, and a wee dram.
“The thing with folk music is that people think it’s a very austere scene, and to a degree it is. Sheila Stewart kind of embodies that – music that must be respected. So for that reason I chose to do a few funny songs; I wanted to make sure that people came to listen, and laugh, and have a good time.”
And while Moffat's reinventing of ballads that (in some cases) go back centuries may have upset a traditionalist or two – the reaction to one gig in particular can be best described as lukewarm – there is a clear context that upholds the music’s spirit, referencing nights gone awry and bawdy brouhaha in a manner that 21st century ears can readily relate to.
Or, as his narration asks, “Instead of hills and heather, why not sing of glass and neon?”
Where You’re Meant to Be is not so much a film about Moffat as people, and places. Of love, and loss. Of a nation’s past, but also its future.
“It’s quite Scottish in tone,” is his own appraisal. “It has quite a dark sense of humour, and a humility to it that’s very Scottish. Scots aren’t very good at shouting about how brilliant they are, so it is quite self-deprecating in that respect. But hopefully it shows the roots of the music.
“A lot of it comes from the north and east – from the farmhands and things like that; rooted very much in working class culture. It’s where a lot of our traditional songs and the songs we know most come from, and we tend to dismiss them quite easily. I did that myself. I wasn’t really interested in the music at all, but then you started to look into it and realise where it comes from, and the darkness too – I think you can appreciate it more. That’s pretty much Scotland in a nutshell: humour and darkness.”
Sheila Stewart passed away at the end of 2014. Her death gives the film a poignant presence, over and above her final appearance, on the tour’s final night at Glasgow’s Barrowlands (where she interrupts Aidan’s rendition of The Parting Glass – pretty much her signature tune – with the declaration, “This is the original version”).
“The last time I saw her was at the Barrowlands, but we were planning to do stuff the following January and do more filming… then she died, and we had to rethink it. The story was already about the two of us, but after she died we had a greater responsibility to make sure we did it right and do her justice. It became more focused as time went on – the film is probably a year late – and her death played a part in that because you have to make sure you get the balance right in that respect.”
And is he happy with the end result?
“It’s an entertaining film about death; a reflection of what to me is the best music… how we chose to portray ourselves, and what we want to leave behind.
“What I like about the film is that there’s no resolution; it doesn’t end with us particularly agreeing or anything. We didn’t come round to either’s way of thinking – if I had turned a corner at the end I think it would have been far too sentimental, and that’s what I like about it.”